Dance Studies: An emerging discipline

Manola K Gayathri examines the work of the dance studies programme, researchers and teachers at the School of Arts and Aesthethics in Jawaharlal Nehru University in building theory and research to navigate the shifts in contemporary dance.



The small group of people crowd in the classroom that has for the evening doubled into a performance space. On one extreme of the upper stage two legs in school-girl socks and shoes are visible with a trickle of red going down the leg and staining the floor. In the middle of the stage, you see the back of a woman as she lies across a block of wood. At the other lower end of the stage, a video of a solo dancer is projected on the wall. The dancer in the video lies on a table just below the projection with her legs in an inverted adavu stance interacting with the images projected. Each of the three performers have had their own narrative of the phrase, “Sit Properly” that is also the title of their experimental piece.

For this contemporary exploration Arushi Singh drew from her gruelling years of traditional training, where to “sit properly” mean to lower her centre of gravity with her legs forming a diamond shape. The narratives of the three performers showcase some of the critical thinking encouraged with experiences around the body and body training at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. While there have been various ancient treatises such as Nandikeshvara’s Abhinayadarpana or Bharata’s Natyashastra or later Feuillet’s Choregraphie or Gallini’s A Treatise on the Art of Dancing as well as much critical writing on dance in the modern era, Dance Studies’ emergence as a discipline in modern academia is much more recent. Among other institutes now focusing on this subject, the Department of Theatre and Performance Studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University offers a rigorous engagement with this newly emerging discipline.

Interrogating the categories of dance

Of the two MA optional dance courses offered, Indian Dance was the first to be passed by the JNU Board of Studies. The radically evolved and restructured course is aimed towards Indian Dance itself. The exposure and thinking developed through such a course allows scholars to re-look at dance cultures and the contentious nomenclature around the categorising of folk, classical, contemporary around their own social and political spheres through new lenses.

Kritika Mondal’s work for example challenges the binaries between folk and classical forms. A trained Odissi dancer herself, she finds the assigning of Gotipua as a folk form problematic and her MPhil work on Gotipua – Virtuosic Intersections: Choreographing Gender and Childness in Gotipua – is an interesting study lensed through contemporary thinking of the body. Usham Rojio’s scholarship contests the hegemony of the Natyashastra with the startling discovery and engagement with an ancient Meitei treatise on performance called Anoirol.

Arushi Singh’s MPhil work looks at the shifting negotiations of dance and it's infrastructures of support in post-1947 Delhi by closely studying the 1958 All India Dance Seminar, the 1959 National Folk Festival and the establishment of the Kathak Kendra in 1964. Such work that critically examines how dance was used within a specific nationalist pursuit paves the way for understanding the relevance and place of contemporary dance.

It is not just the categories of dance but that of identity and it's relationship to movement aesthetics that also interest the scholars. Tian Jia Yuan got interested in the work of the Taiwanese contemporary dance theatre group, Legend Lin, for their unique aesthetic developed through slowness and stillness differentiating them from most other Taiwanese groups. The visibility of groups such as Legend Lin or Cloudgate in the international scene is also something he looks at through the lens of the identity politics between Taiwan and China. As most Taiwanese are of Chinese ethnicity but do stake a claim to represent “Chineseness” in the way that China does, he finds that the work of Cloudgate and Legend Lin have developed a sensibility that allows them to express something “other” than this ethnicity.

Dance as a critical analysis of the body in society

One of the key perceptual lenses for understanding dance in contemporary time is the focus on the body. The second optional course called Dance Body and Society, emerges from New Dance Studies, a multi-disciplinary engagement with philosophy, movement analysis, identity studies and history. The interdisciplinary focus of the department makes it a fertile ground for fresh perspectives. After Dr Soumybrata Choudhury’s course on movements and concepts in performance where Rajaram came across Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre, an analysis of movement in the book struck him. If to some extent modern drama reinterpreted text, Rajaram found himself wondering how the body needed to be trained or understood differently to experience a sense of this modern. His PhD work makes some original contributions on the idea of trance and pain in movement rituals. His analysis looks at trance as a dance that not only prepares the body for pain but also helps process the pain experienced.

There is an interesting anecdote here. While attempting to codify the movements of the Kavadi dancer and inspired by his exposure to Laban notation, he evolved his own notation form. His supervisor Dr Urmimala Sarkar when emailed the transcript agreed to accept the notation if she was able to decipher it and through the notation dance back the form. Surprisingly, based on his notations, Dr Sarkar, who had not studied the form was able to do recreate the movement patterns of the devotees/dancers of Kavadi Attam. It was a triumphant moment for both supervisor and the young research scholar. It was also through this work that he built his argument to prove that ritual performances of this festival could also be studied as dance. Leading to Rajaram’s study of Laban notation while looking at dance theory, helped him understand that codified patterns that repeated in a movement piece could well come within the parameters of dance studies. Noticing the ritual festivals near his home in Tamil Nadu, he was able to codify the movements of the dancers in the Kavadi Attam.

My own MPhil work on Reconfiguring the body: simulation and corporeality in mediatised performance analysed Attakkalari’s Transavatar read alongside Girish Karnad’s A Heap of Broken Images. This analysis took stock of the way contemporary productions were responding to a new subjectivity created by hybrid identities, digital technologies and globalisation. An Advanced Research Seminar that I was roped into teaching, saw the writings of two rather interesting papers by young scholars Swasti Kumar and Nida Ansari. Swasti Kumar’s seminar presentation on “Hatsune Miku: the User Generated Idol” analysed a Japanese anime looking at how the “idol” is achieved by the elimination of human subjects from the act of performing. Thinking through performance cultures like the Hatsune Miku anime cults, this self-confessed Japanophile, explored some of the more fascinating areas of contemporary digital cultures. Nida Ansari’s paper was an interesting analysis of Chandralekha’s Sharira through the Irigarayan gesture of two lips that open and close. The understanding of contemporary dance through such contemporary philosophy is another welcome trend among the young scholars.

The Role of Practice in Dance Studies Research

Dr Urmimala Sarkar, who has included a compulsory workshop component as part of the Dance Studies courses speaks of the relevance of practice for scholarship saying “One problem that I have always felt is a dangerous trend, in studies on something as corporeal as dance, is that many of our students have never really danced...Hence, one aim is to bring in at least an idea of practice within the scholarly ambit.” Over the years workshops with experts in the field such as Navtej Singh Johar has left it's mark on the young scholars. For Rajaram, the simple exercise of being asked to move across the floor with different parts touching the body, opened up a huge range of possibility in terms of understanding how to move.

An opportunity to be part of Lotus Path, a choreography with which JNU students toured through Japan over a period of three months in 2007 further deepened his interest in dance. Joining contemporary dance classes in the city soon after, gave him many insights into the experience of performers. His experience of ‘pushing his body to different limits’ under the scrutiny of a dance class and with the encouragement of his instructor at Danceworx allowed him to propose that a similar psychology of motivation and support from the group/community must be at play in more extreme instances of ritual piercing that was the centre of the trance performances that he studied. It developed into one of the important themes of his PhD thesis.

Interacting with practitioners through different institutions has also changed the directions of scholarship. Arushi Singh, who had been invited by GATI Dance Forum in 2012 to document, and write about the different choreographic approaches of the GATI Summer Dance Residents, went onto work in a project called Dance Union: Initiative for a Sustainable Dance Environment. She said, “While working on the project, I encountered many dancers in my city, who felt challenged because of the paucity of support for their practices. I understood that my scholarship urgently needed to address this struggle.”

Contemporary Understandings

Dance Studies at JNU enables young scholars to experiment with new ways of understanding contemporary dance, while allowing those working on more traditional dance forms new ways at looking at these forms. But crucially placing the both dance and the body within the larger concerns of society. While much of the current accents of scholarship are on critical interrogations of dance and the institutions that create them, it certainly has the scope to develop other contemporary modalities of thinking and writing about dance. The interaction of scholarship and practice as well as an engagement with other dance institutions in the city and across the country, allow for the scholarship to develop through personal insight and field realities. As scholar Kritikka Mondal points out, there still appears to be room for developing theoretical frameworks that emerge out of Indian Aesthetic Theory. Coming back to the performance Sit Properly, I think again about what is the nature of contemporary dance if it is also not in some ways an interrogation of the “proper”. For those like Arushi Singh, the courses have helped rethink their training and experience, and then move beyond personal self reflection into thinking about the practice, institution and needs of the dance community. For others like Rajaram, it helped initiate them into a world of movement and find new ways to perceive the world around them and articulate this. For others, it has allowed for negotiating identity and histories and new subjectivities.

My gratitude to Dr. Urmimala Sarkar, Rajaram, Arushi Singh, Kritikka Mondal, Tian Jia Yuan and others for generously sharing their insights, thoughts and experience of Dance Studies at JNU with me.

Manola K Gayathri


Ligament, the online dance journal, has been launched to reflect the keen rise in the interest to contextualise, reflect and voice the goings-on around contemporary dance practices in the South Asian region. It has been envisioned as an avenue that is aimed at prompting and encouraging a sustained engagement between contemporary dance practitioners, thinkers, writers, artistic practitioners from other mediums, stakeholders and the wider public. Over the past editions of the Attakkalari Dance Biennial, there has been a continuous effort to create a space for writing on dance; and with this squarely in mind, Ligament has been conceived as a platform to facilitate the much-needed articulation and thinking through this evolving language. We hope to accomplish this by looking at this artistic practice through the perspective of historical threads that helped shape, through practice and creation of work, which is adding and solidifying the ever-changing lexicon and its presentation, or even through research and scholarship. The endeavour is to make this an open, creative and vibrant forum that invites ideas, contributions and suggestions allowing for the collective development of this artistic practice in the South Asian context; as well as mapping its links and impacts on contemporary dance as a whole. On one hand, it is about looking at contemporary dance as a growing repository of our present realities and on the other hand delving into our rich heritage of physical and performative traditions in an attempt to seek continuum and elucidate the now. In an attempt to ravel the medium of contemporary dance, We aren’t simply interested in text as a mode of expressing, reading, examining and looking at contemporary dance but to reflect the dynamic and interactive nature of the movement arts, we are also looking towards image, sound and video and the practitioners of these mediums to create and catalyse conversations. We hope that dialogue and discourse enabled through Ligament opens various entry points into the ongoing shifts in contemporary dance for its lovers, practitioners, enablers and its future.

- Jayachandran Palazhy
Artistic Director, Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts

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